Stage 34 – Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan: The Caspian Lowlands [1/2]
The Caspian Sea is a remnant of the ancient Paratethys Ocean, from which it was isolated around five and a half million years ago. Though not technically a lake, the Caspian is the largest enclosed body of water on Earth, draining a large swathe of European Russia by means of the Volga, Europe’s largest river. On the western shore of the Caspian, the Caucasus Mountains come down to the coast, creating an area of verdant and fertile foothills. On the eastern edge of the Caspian however, lie desolate lowland areas of barren desert, today very sparsely populated. My journey through the Caspian Lowlands would take me firstly through the Kazakhstani region of Mangystau, a starkly beautiful land filled with highly venerated medieval shrines and necropoles of magnificently carved stone, testament to millennia of nomadic civilisations. Across the border to the south, in Turkmenistan, I would traverse the western edges of the Karakum Desert; today a blighted land of sand and takir (dried mud flats), but once the Persian satrapy of Dekhistan with its ancient capital Misrian, a Silk Road staging post, now a hauntingly abandoned ruin in the midst of nothingness.
Late in the afternoon of the 11th June 2014 I leave Atyrau after two days spent relaxing, registering myself with the police and stocking up on supplies for the coming weeks of desert travel. I cross the Ural River and enter Asia, where I will remain for the next five months until crossing the Bosphorous in Istanbul. It’s a relaxing drive as the sun’s rays lengthen, colouring the barren plains either side of the road. Not long after leaving the city and sprawl of industry which surrounds it, I’m disturbed when the truck’s charge warning light suddenly comes on. The cause is merely a loose connection which has lead to arcing, burning away a little insulation on the connector. After tightening the connection however, the light is still on and I initially turn around, back towards the city, but stop again and fix the problem after a little thought by replacing the voltage regulator; one of very few spare parts which I am carrying.
Continuing my journey east, I drive blissfully into the cool desert night on a perfect asphalt road, crossing into Mangystau Region, stopping after midnight around twenty-five kilometres short of Beyneu, using my GPS to find the exact same spot near the railway line where I had camped in August 2011. In the morning I pass Beyneu then turn south, climbing almost imperceptibly onto the Ustyurt Plateau, a barren upland which stretches east to the Aral Sea and south into Turkmenistan. The road alternates between perfect new asphalt and sections of horrendously rough, compressed mud where one is forced onto parallel tracks in the steppe which have been milled into very fine dust by passing lorries and which billows in great clouds across the landscape. In the early afternoon I drop off the edge of the plateau through a spectacular escarpment in the cliffs of white and chocolate-brown rock, dropping onto the Mangyshlak Peninsula. In the town of Shetpe I leave the main road and head north on tracks across the semi-desert, stopping at the beautiful, lone mountain known as Sherkala, whose banded flanks of yellow and white limestone have been eroded into deep flutes, picked out in the warm, soft glow of the afternoon sun.
After the starkly barren desert around Atyrau, the land of the Mangyshlak Peninsula is subtly greener and lightly covered with fragrant wormwood. The successive generations of nomadic tribes who have grazed these steppes have used the soft native rock to carve elaborate funerary monuments such as highly stylised steles, slab-sided sarcophagi, and large mausolea. These beautiful necropoles can be found stranded in magnificent isolation out on the steppe at places whose significance must be lost to time; the only traces of long departed nobles, warriors and sages from a culture which left no other mark on the land. Here, not far from the foot of Sherkala, I come across my first necropolis, with dozens of graves, some with a carved tombstone known as a koytas and others simply piles of lichen-covered stones. Among these are also several examples of a stele known as a kulpytas; with a rounded upper portion thought to represent a head, or perhaps the cosmos, a beautifully carved middle section, and a rectangular base carved with floral designs still found on contemporary Kazakh felt carpets, these are theorised to be more recent, Islamicised versions of the ancient Turkic balbal, the anthropomorphic stone found all across the steppes of Eurasia.
I drive into the early evening following tracks in the steppe, hugging a gentle ridge dividing two wide valleys dotted with camels and horses, backed by the spectacularly eroded edge of the Ustyurt Plateau, a truly beautiful, calm environment in which I stop to camp for the night. This is exactly the freedom I have been craving throughout the last two and a half years of living in Western Europe.
In the morning the track descends westwards into Torysh, the ‘Valley of Balls’ which is littered with large, spherical and ovoidal concretions of limestone formed in the bed of a shallow ancient sea, now cascading down the hillsides as if used in some giant’s game. As I near the shore of the Caspian, the overcast sky breaks into wet sea squalls which seem rather incongruous in this usually waterless environment, and turn the tracks into mud. Descending onto the coastal plain, I reach a small, sacred valley whose limestone walls have been eroded into honeycomb. The valley is filled with graves, some decorated with ram’s horns and a ritual fire stone known as a shirktas. As I sit in the truck waiting for a particularly strong squall to pass, I see pilgrims filing from a minibus into a modern mosque. Across this region, the age-old steppe traditions of ancestor-worship and paganism fuse with more recently introduced Islam into a culture of shrine worshipping. I walk down into the canyon and enter the centre of veneration here; a cruciform cave-mosque carved out of the native rock, with swirling reliefs of columns, walls etched with pictures of animals and Arabic script and wall-niches for candles. Dating to somewhere between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, the mosque is said to have been the residence of a healer known as Shakpak-Ata, and devoted Kazakh pilgrims come here to be in his presence, and to offer prayers asking for good health or fortune.
The following day, after spending a rainy night out on the steppe I make my way to the coast, passing the beautiful walled necropolis of Beysenbay which is particularly rich in ornately carved kulpytases and etchings of horses, hunters, camels and open hand designs on the walls of a fine, domed stone mausoleum. Then, as I drive on dusty steppe tracks I come across something quite amazing. Here, the vast grassland ecosystem of dry, powdery earth, fragrant with the scent of wormwood and animal musk, dotted with the settlements of herders and nomads, scoured with the time-worn tracks of livestock and occasional monuments of past inhabitants; this steppe which so defines the landscape and culture of Central Asia abruptly, without more than a couple of kilometres warning, drops away into the gleaming azure of the Caspian Sea, which here looks and feels very much like the ocean. I try to imagine the Mongols coming here on horseback in the thirteenth century; smelling the salt air and then seeing the land fall away into oblivion, and wonder if they thought, momentarily, that they had reached the very edge of the world.
I drop down an escarpment in the steep coastal cliffs to a local beauty spot known as Tamshaly, where water drips gently from within the layers of rock making up the plateau, forming a verdant oasis of hanging greenery and a reed-fringed pool. The beauty is however rather marred by a group of local Kazakh day-trippers who blast out music and distribute litter, so I drive down onto a beach of coarse sand, chat briefly with a local fisherman, then have a refreshing wash at the water’s edge. It’s not far from here to the westernmost tip of the Mangyshlak Peninsula, and I pass through the small port of Bautino, which has a couple of preserved examples of Tsarist-era houses, before stopping for lunch in the adjacent town of Fort Shevchenko. It was here that Russians first established a presence on the peninsula with construction of the naval stronghold of Novopetrovskoye in 1846. This remote outpost naturally became a centre of exile, and was home as such between 1850 and 1857 to Ukrainian poet and political figure Taras Shevchenko, who was imprisoned here after offending Tsar Nicholas I with a poem. His image was rehabilitated in Soviet times as that of an anti-Tsarist activist, leading to the town’s renaming to Fort Shevchenko in 1939. There’s a large bronze statue of the Ukrainian poet in a leafy park in the centre of town, and a striking realist monument to its history of incarceration, but otherwise, Fort Shevchenko still has the air of a far-flung outpost.
I drive south-east on a paved road out of Fort Shevchenko, riding roughly parallel to the barren coast towards the regional capital Aktau. As I approach the city, the traffic starts to increase and for the first time since leaving Atyrau I have the impression of entering an urban area. I stop short of the city to visit a final necropolis known as Koshkar-Ata, by far the largest I have seen. In its northern section, I see koytases and kulpytases similar to those I have seen on the steppe, as well as a distinctive tombstone carved into the shape of a ram, known as a koshkaratas, complete with carvings of a sword and axe, indicating that the interred may have been a warrior. In its southern reaches the tightly-packed graves are contrastingly modern, boxy structures which continue to spread ever further south as modern, settled Kazakhs continue the funerary tradition of their nomadic forbears.
Aktau is a modern city, founded in 1958 on this absolutely barren and waterless coastline in order to exploit nearby uranium reserves, supplied with water and electricity by a combined nuclear reactor and desalinator. With the development of Mangystau’s oil reserves, Aktau increasingly became an oil-town, and today shares in Kazakhstan’s post-independence oil boom. Compared with Atyrau, Aktau feels rather less modernised, with fewer glass-fronted oil company offices, but the streets feel friendlier and the warm, blue waters and sandy beaches of the Caspian are far nicer than Atyrau’s desolate surroundings. Indeed, the city’s centre remains very Soviet in layout, divided into micro-districts with each slightly shabby prefabricated apartment building (one of which bears a lighthouse on its roof) numbered individually and accessed by unnamed roads. I spend three full days in Aktau meeting my host Evgenia and a number of her friends, walking among the concrete monuments and mildly cosmopolitan population of a Soviet planned city, and watching Kazakh and Russian families enjoying the beach, swimming in the turquoise waters while tankers and cargo ships manoeuvre around each other a few kilometres offshore.
The time comes however to leave these urban comforts and head back into the scorching desert. I drive east out of town, through the Karagiye Depression, which reaches 134 metres below sea-level, making it the lowest point in the Former USSR, arriving in the oil town of Zhanaozen in the fearsome afternoon heat. Here I am hosted by Asset, a Kazakh environmental consultant who lives in the city with his wife and two young children. Asset and I immediately seem to bond, despite knowing limited amounts of each other’s languages. With his two sons, Asset and I pick up his friend Ghaziz and head for the coast, to a beautiful secluded bay known as Kendirli. Many families have come here to cool off after the stifling heat of the day, and as the sun slowly sinks behind the long natural headland which protects the bay, filled with young Kazakh families, I feel I am seeing a vision of the future of this prosperous young country which I have enjoyed visiting over the past seven years.
On returning, Asset’s wife has prepared a traditional meal of beshbarmak, consisting of chunks of beef and kazy (horse sausage), with potatoes, onions and hand made pasta squares which is delicious, though I am thankfully not obliged to eat any of the boiled sheep’s head, a traditional Kazakh delicacy reserved for a guest. After dinner, Asset and I head out into the warm evening and round off the evening drinking a few beers with Ghaziz. Despite having known each other only a few hours, I feel as if I’ve come upon an old friend; hospitality experiences such as these are truly one of the great joys of travelling.
I head off into the desert proper the next morning on dusty tracks, joining what is perhaps the most revered pilgrimage route in the country. I first stop at the desert shrine of Shopan-Ata, who was a disciple of the great twelfth century Turkic mystic and scholar Khoja Akhmet Yassawi, and who legend says, founded a mosque here when he came across his masters staff stuck into the desert. The shrine is centred around a simple cave-mosque, behind which lies a ritual desert trail passing various graves, ending at a large stone phallus rubbed smooth by visiting female pilgrims, blackened by the burning of rags soaked in mutton fat which are placed on its tip. Next to this is a curving branch of a long-dead tree under which women stoop, heavily tied with votive scarves. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse of what must be very ancient, and to me very esoteric traditions of the steppe, only very slightly influenced by any Islamic tradition.
Beyond the shrine complex, I join a graded track east, deeper into the desert, climbing eventually onto a large, natural ramp which gently brings me once more onto the Ustyurt Plateau, with beautiful views to the south of bright white limestone escarpments carved into the grey-brown desert plain. The track ends at the shrine complex of Beket-Ata, where numerous minibuses are parked outside a modern pilgrim centre. Beket-Ata was an eighteenth century Sufi hermit; educated in Bukhara, a veteran and hero of Kazakh battles with the Kalmyks of southern Russia, later to become a saint, soothsayer and healer. Perhaps because of his fame as a healer, Beket-Ata’s shrine is an especially popular destination of pilgrimage, and I am in the company of dozens of local visitors. The temperature is well above 40º C when I arrive and so I rest for a couple of hours in the air-conditioned pilgrim centre, located on the edge of the plateau, mustering the energy to begin my own walk to the shrine at around 16:30.
From the visitor centre, a path drops down towards the desert floor, passing a brackish holy spring which waters a small grove of saxauls in which a urial ewe is grazing. Groups of red-faced pilgrims pass me on their return journey from the shrine, often asking for water, some of them elderly and overweight women who must be at the very limits of their endurance in the terrific heat. At the cave-mausoleum itself, I join a group of Kazakhs, and together we sit in the whitewashed, almost conical main chamber. Dozens of urial horns are stuffed into an alcove in the ceiling, which has a large hole in to allow light and a little fresh air to enter. A custodian in a taqiyah (white skull-cap) gives an explanation in Kazakh, then recites a prayer in heavily accented Arabic. We then file into a second chamber, which Beket-Ata is said to have used for healing, where a time-worn stick is propped against a wall. We all circulate the chamber three times, ducking under the stick each time, then exit the mausoleum backwards, ending the ritual visit.
After walking back up to the visitor centre I rest with some of the pilgrims in the male wing of the visitor centre, and at around 19:00 we all sit down to share a communal, celebratory meal. Small plastic tablecloths are spread onto the floor, around which groups of men sit. Huge enamel bowls of broth are brought out and place on the floor between groups. A boy walks around with a ewer of water and a trough like an inverted hexagonal top-hat, and we rinse our hands. Then come enamel bowls full of rice and mutton pieces; for our group of six, a sheep’s head, some ribs, a thigh and a large lump of off-white fat. The meat and rice are fresh and excellent, and after eating we slurp at bowls of salty bullion, most welcome after the sweaty slog down to the shrine and back. When the meal is finished we wipe our greasy fingers on a rather musty rag, then listen to an extended prayer by the custodian. Although the mausoleum itself is rather plain, and the ceremony brief, the reverence of the Kazakh pilgrims, the spectacularly remote location and the ceremonial evening meal make for quite an unforgettable experience. I feel that I have witnessed, and partaken in a very ancient ritual of nomadic spiritualism, laced with paganism, ancestor worship and Islam, which has been passed through the generations within a rich oral history of memory and legends. After watching a spectacular red sunset across the desert, I retire for the night, leaving the cramped visitor centre and spending a warm night sleeping on the back of the truck, though I’m often woken by the near-continuous coming and going of pilgrim-filled minibuses throughout the night.
I leave early in the morning, backtracking a few kilometres from the shrine, then striking off the well-used pilgrim track southwards, deep into the desert. I spend the day weaving a path on rarely-used tracks which I have studied on satellite maps, orienteering between fixed waypoints, making my way towards the Ustyurt Nature Reserve. It’s a distance of around 165 kilometres to the park entrance through utterly barren terrain, throughout which I see no signs of human life apart from the desert tracks and a single, abandoned shepherd’s hut. By mid-afternoon I reach a track which seems to be regularly used, and plunge into thick, billowing bull-dust and sandy tracks as I climb onto the Ustyurt Plateau near the park entrance. The park is a restricted area, and I take a route as far as possible from the ranger’s hut in order to avoid detection, though manage to take a wrong turn which takes me further from my intended destination on very rough tracks. The outdoor temperature is around 45º C, almost 50º C in the truck, which makes getting lost on these broken-up tracks extremely frustrating. After stopping, cooling my head and back-tracking, I find my mistake at a junction at which I took the wrong fork, and rejoin the correct track, passing what looks to be a recently abandoned lorry. When the track is just a few hundred metres from my destination I take off on a bearing across the rough desert floor, climbing a gentle rise onto a promontory, then descending a steep gradient to come to a stop for the night on a small patch of almost-flat ground, overlooking the Karyn Zharyk Depression.
The view across the depression is simply awesome; one of the most impressive sights I can remember seeing for many years. Perched on the cliff-tops 180 metres above the depression, I have an expansive view of Lake Kendirlisor, which now in mid-summer is a stunning expanse of white salt, grading at its edges into brown silt. On this salt pan are a number of islands looming in the heat haze like floating icebergs but in fact remnant chunks of the Ustyurt Plateau, eroded into beautifully fluted, conical forms of multicoloured banded rock. The heat is fierce, and so I lay my Sindhi ralli (a multicoloured quilt), given to me by a holy man in southern Pakistan six years ago on the shady ground, lying half under the truck, waiting for the sun to lower towards the horizon. The location is utterly remote, and after a tough drive of 216 kilometres from Beket-Ata, during which I have not seen a single person or moving vehicle, it’s both thrilling and slightly terrifying to be here. As the evening cools slightly, there is a spectacular sunset across the depression and I lie in nothing but my underpants on the back of the truck, listening to music under a sky filled with stars, in glorious, perfect solitude. With the experiences of the last few days; staying with Asset and his family, joining the pilgrimage to Beket-Ata, and now having this truly awesome natural wonder at my feet, all to myself, I can say that I’m really living my dreams, living life as I want it to be.
In the morning, after a perfect night’s sleep, I watch the light change over the depression as the sun rises, though leave before the heat and haze become too much; whilst the evenings and nights here are spectacular, the daytime must be miserably hot and totally shadeless. It’s 161 km of desert tracks to reach Zhanaozen, much of the time in deep bull-dust, where I must either close the windows and watch the temperatures rise above fifty degrees, or allow a constant stream of dust to enter the truck. I’m very relieved to reach civilisation in the afternoon in Zhanaozen, and spend the night with Asset and his family once more.
In the morning I head south, to what feels like the utter end of Kazakhstan. Soon after passing the beach at Kendirli, the asphalt ends and the track becomes an atrocious mess of hard, pounded mud, perhaps the worst road I can remember driving on. After an easy exit from Kazakhstan at the Temir Baba border, I spend the night in no-man’s land waiting for my five-day transit visa for Turkmenistan to begin, parking the truck in the long line of Iranian trucks waiting to enter Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani border guards here are very kind, bringing me out cold water and a meal of grilled chicken and bread. I’ve often wondered which of the five Central Asian republics of the Former USSR is my favourite, but after this latest visit, I can firmly say it is Kazakhstan.